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Van Van, Los


Formed: 4 December 1969, Havana, Cuba

Members: Juan Formell, guitar, bass, composer, band-leader (born Havana, Cuba, 8 February 1942); Cesar "Pupy" Pedroso, piano; Roberto "Cucurucho" Carlos, piano; Jose Luis "Changuito" Quintana, congas, timbales; Samuell Formell, drums; Boris Luna, synthesizer; Angel Bonne, Pedro Calvo, Mayito Rivera, Roberto "Guayacan" Hernández, Yeni Valdes (first woman member), Abel "Lele" Rosales, vocals.

Genre: World

Best-selling album since 1990: Llego . . . Van Van ("Van Van Is Here") (1999)

Hit songs since 1990: "El Negro Está Cocinando," "¡Que Sorpresa! (Voy a Publicar Tu Foto)"

Havana-born Juan Formell studied music as a child with his father, an honored music educator, and the bassists Orestes Urfe and Orestes López "Cachao," among others. The Mexican Trio Los Panchos, singer Benny Moré, and trumpeter Chapottin were the favorite entertainers of his youth. At age sixteen he embarked on a career as a bar-hopping troubadour, but his efforts were interrupted by his conscription as a bassist into Fidel Castro's National Police Band in 1959, the year of the Cuban revolution.

To perform for state functions Formell had to quickly master a broad repertoire of traditional Cuban songs and rhythms such as the mambo, bolero, rumba, son, and danzon. While in the police band, Formell also had his first exposure to radio broadcasts from Miami, which opened up new worlds of American R&B, jazz, rock and roll, and country music. Through this musical education on the fly, he prepared himself to lead one of the most enduring hot dance bands of the past four decades.

Returning to civilian life in a Havana liberated from the rule of Batista, he became a journeyman in the then-dispirited world of the Cuban dance hall. Formell assimilated and adapted everything he heard, scoring a dance hit with "El Martes" while serving as musical director for Elio Reve's courtly flutes-and-violins charanga Orquesta Revé. He introduced rock chord progressions, electric guitars, and bass lines to the "country son" reveries of Reve's ensemble and promoted the sound as "El Changui '68."

In 1969 Formell left Revé to establish Los Van Van"the go-go's!" or "go, go!"with an even more aggressive approach to his musical heritage. Formell called his new jazz-inflected sound "songo." The sound added three trom-bones to two violins, two flutes, string bass, and piano, along with a seductive trio of male vocalists singing Formell's own witty lyrics, all piled atop layers of expertly synchronized polyrhythms.

Los Van Van was a vehicle for Formell's songo tracks throughout the 1970s. In the 1980s he announced his "buey cansado" sound, incorporating electric keyboards, synthesizers, and drum machines into already dense, churning instrumentation. This stylistic development of Formell's was eagerly embraced by audiences and record buyersexcept in the United States, which enforces restrictions on cultural exchange and commercial activities with Cuba.

Such sanctions have not hindered Formell, Los Van Van, or other Cuban musicians from realizing world-class musical standards or achieving ambitions similar to those of the best bands. Professional Cuban bands (officially employed by the state) vie to top each other as did swing bands during the Depression years in the United States. In the late 1980s the rise of NG Banda, which introduced a looser, funkier "timba" as its own "new sound," pressed Formell to continually reinvent Los Van Van. He has evidently accomplished that feat and composes essential timba anthems while leading Los Van Van in acclaimed timba albums.

Juan Formell y Los Van Van remains a star attraction at music festivals and fiestas worldwide. They suffered personnel attrition with the departure of Changuito in 1992, Cesar "Pupi" Pedroso in 2000, and Pedro Calvo in 2001, each to form his own band. But Formell has attracted equally gifted musicians as replacements, so that Van Van maintains a reputation for finding and launching new talents.

Los Van Van boasts a discography of twenty recordings and more than 150 original songs, some of which have been covered by Rubén Blades, Harry Belafonte, Ray Barreto, and El Gran Combo de Puerto Ríco. The albums that have been released in the United States have been highly acclaimed. Llego . . . Los Van Van (1999) won a 1999 Grammy Award for Best Salsa Performance. Los Van Van are invariably included in anthologies surveying popular Cuban music since 1969, and the band's tour schedule rivals that of any comparable top-tier ensemble. Los Van Van has traveled throughout South, Central, and Caribbean America as well as to Asia, Europe, the United States, and the former Soviet Union.


Songo (Mango, 1988); Dancing Wet (World Pacific, 1993); Azucar (Xenophile, 1995); Ay, Dios ¡Ampárame! (Caribe, 1995); Lo Ultimo En Vivo (Qbadisc, 1996); Con La Salsa Formell (Cubacan, 1997); Best of Los Van Van (Milan, 1997); La Colección Cubana (Music Club, 1998); Llego Van Van (Atlantic/Calie 1999); Coleccion, Vol. 7 (Egrem, 2002); Live in America (AJ, 2003).

howard mandel

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